Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Graduate School

Interesting article by Patricia Cohen in the NY Times about graduate school. Cohen begins by noting that while you can finish a law degree in three years, it takes an average of nine to finish a Ph.D. in the humanities. Because many students take time off, the average recipient of a humanities Ph.D. is 35 years old, and only half the students who enter a Ph.D. program ever finish.

The whole business is really quite crazy, and even though almost everyone agrees that it is crazy, nobody knows what to do about it. The greater the gap grows between the number of Ph.D.s and the number of academic jobs, the greater the pressure to emerge from graduate school with a long list of accomplishments. The incentive to finish in a hurry is also reduced when you are not sure if there will be a job waiting for you. So while we fret about about all those wasted years, the programs actually take longer and longer to complete.

From the point of view of a hypothetical Czar of American Education -- or, say, a state legislator -- the system must look like a gigantic waste. We take tens of thousands of the smartest, hardest-working young people in America and encourage them to spend a decade in the study of scholarly arcana that contribute nothing to the Gross Domestic Product and are sometimes only tangentially related to the careers they want to pursue as college teachers. (I have personally never had the chance to mention, to a student, anything that I learned in the course of my dissertation research.) Many people emerge frustrated and bitter, feeling like they have been lied to and used. "Lives are warped," as Louis Menand puts it.

As I believe I have said here before, I think the graduate school "crisis" is one version of the much broader problem of how young people figure out what to do with their lives. I know very few people who emerged from college ready to get to work, with clear ideas about a career. College graduates who don't go to graduate school often spend years bouncing around between various low-paying jobs (like archaeological field technician), not settling down into a profession for a decade or so. Many people who enter graduate school and then drop out would probably have spent those years doing some sort of semi-menial work, and compared to most such jobs, graduate school is not a bad way to spend your time. You hang around with smart people, read interesting books, learn something about the world.

So I am not certain that most graduate school dropouts, or those who finish degrees but can't get teaching jobs, have lost that much.

Where I do agree with these Cassandras is in worrying about the gap between the academic world and the rest of America. This is William Pannapacker, a loud critic of humanities education:

“Academe encourages students to think of what they’re doing as a special kind of calling or vocation which is exempt from the rules of the marketplace,” he says. Those who look to work outside the scholarly world are seen as rejecting the academy’s core values. “They socialize students into believing they can’t leave academe or shouldn’t, which is why they hang on year after year as adjuncts, rather than pursue alternative careers.”
And Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools:

Humanities Ph.D.’s have focused exclusively on the academic job market. They don’t have anyplace else to go, or they don’t perceive that they have anyplace else to go.

There is life outside the university. I have found an interesting way to make a living, and my company is full of people from academic backgrounds who have also carved out decent niches for themselves. Seen from the outside, much of what academics concern themselves with seems petty and self-involved. The question, "What, exactly, does your research contribute to the world?" strikes many academics as not just annoying but heretical. The question, "Why should the taxpayers of your state subsidize your work?" is likely to get a reaction that is either smugly superior or angry. I ask these questions as someone who believes deeply in the higher purpose of humanistic scholarship, and who is not particularly wedded to marketplace values. But I think to turn your back on the rest of the world, to assume that non-academics are all ignorant money-grubbers, to think that corporations produce nothing but pollution and junk, to believe that all scholarly research has a value beyond price, is willfully blind and also a great disservice to students. The world is a scary enough place for students without professors filling their heads with lies about how wicked and pointless life is outside the university.

(Of course, academia is not the only closed world. Consider those ministers who have lost their faith in god, most of whom say they would like to get other jobs but feel qualified to do nothing outside the church.)

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